Archive for the ‘Vinyl’ Category

Old school jazz, saved by newfangled technology

March 12, 2008

In which YouTube and a humble bit of aftermarket technology bring an out-of-print Duke Ellington album back to life.

 


This video is from one of the original recording dates of the out-of-print album
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra/Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra, January 9, 1962. The track, Blow Boy Blow, features a bebop-flavored solo by tenor sax player Paul Gonsalves.

One of the college stations I listen to for jazz really likes to mix it up. They play mostly avant garde stuff, the music that’s really catching my ear these days. But occasionally, they’ll throw it something really old school. I think that’s great—partly because it gives you these wonderful Aha! moments, getting some sense of where certain things came from, and partly because, for a lot of younger college listeners, it may turn them onto something they’d never heard before.

Which brings me to another point. In opening ourselves up to all kinds of music, there’s an argument out there that doesn’t hold water and, quite frankly, really pisses me off: “That was before my time.” If you lived, oh, in the time of Mozart, you might have gotten away with saying that about the music of Bach. But now in the time of recorded music, that excuse just doesn’t fly. Not only are you free to explore music from other times now—you can explore music from distant places and cultures. Gamelan music from Indonesia. Pan flutes from Peru. Or big band music from the end of its heyday.

Last Friday morning, WNUR dj Flavian Wallis put this particular bee in my bonnet. I’d been wondering what to write about this week when he played a wonderful track from Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges’ Side By Side. First released in 1958, it put me in mind of an Ellington/Hodges album gathering dust in my collection, and suddenly I knew what I would be listening to.

imic.jpgAnd to make this old vinyl album easier to cart around and listen to everywhere—on the kitchen boombox, in the car, on my iPod—I knew I would be hauling out a fairly recent bit of technology, the Griffin iMic/USB Audio Interface. This little gadget lets you plug a turntable directly into your computer and burn vinyl [or old cassette tapes] onto your computer as mp3s or other digital music files. It sells for 40 bucks or less at Apple stores or at Amazon and works with software you download for free. I’ve already used it to make a bunch of old vinyl more portable [we have a not inconsiderable collection of vinyl I can’t bring myself to part with yet, partly because of the simple pleasures of the ritual of the turntable]. Marion’s even found rare old opera albums at thrift stores that are currently waiting to be cued up and brought back to life.

One album I revived this past weekend was this delightful mix of big band and jazz. Released on the Storyville label in 1978, after Ellington’s death, the album is simply called Duke Ellington and his Orchestra/Johnny Hodges and his Orchestra. It came out of two recording dates—Duke’s happening in 1962 and Hodges’ two years later. By the time of these recordings, big bands had mostly fallen out of favor, replaced by smaller jazz groups. And they were no longer economically sensible—Ellington kept his 17-piece orchestra going pretty much out of his own pocket, just because this music is what he did. The Johnny Hodges orchestra was really an octet, a splinter group made up of Ellington musicians.


This tune, All of Me, doesn’t appear on the album, but it features Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

Honestly, Ellington and Hodges both have far superior recordings to this one. But there’s something quite interesting about it, particularly the seven sides by the Ellington Orchestra. I originally bought the album for the first two tracks, classic Ellington: Take the A Train and Satin Doll. ellington-coltrane.jpgThey don’t disappoint. But more interesting are less famous tracks. In Blow Boy Blow and VIP’s Boogie/Jam with Sam, soloists reach beyond standard big band riffs, bringing definite bebop chops to the sound. When they weren’t touring with Ellington, they were probably gigging in New York clubs, playing straightahead jazz, and it shows. Further, Ellington must have encouraged it and incorporated it into his sound. Poking around on YouTube for this post, I heard him doing some out there stuff in his later years. I also came across an amazing album he did with John Coltrane called, originally enough, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. I think I’m going to be buying this one soon.

By contrast, the tracks by Hodges cleave much more to the old big band sound and, for the most part, sound as if they could have been recorded in the 40s or even the 30s. This is all the more interesting because he led a smaller group that could have exploited what was going on all around them.


While not the recording from the album, this track, VIP’s Boogie/Jam with Sam, appears on it. You also get to meet many of Ellington’s musicians.

So I only have one sample track from this actual album for you. Well, that and perhaps the inspiration to step outside your comfort zone. Stretch your ear. Seek out something old, something obscure, even something in a music genre you haven’t explored. Libraries are a great place to do this on someone else’s nickel, by the way. So is YouTube. I’d love to hear where your musical adventure takes you.

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With friends like these, who needs amplifiers?

December 12, 2007

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Delaney & Bonnie and Friends: Motel Shot

We know a number of musicians, and pretty much all of them share the view of bassist Mike Prokopf, that bands are paid to haul equipment and they play for free.

It’s a common complaint among musicians, especially when they’re on the road. You spend so much time hauling equipment, driving hundreds of miles from one gig to the next, hanging out in cheap motel rooms waiting to play or winding down after, and so little time actually making music.

That’s the concept behind this brilliant gem of an album. First released on vinyl in 1971 and rereleased on CD at least four different times [yes, it’s that good], Motel Shot is the kind of music a band plays after the gig, when they’re back at the motel and not ready to sleep or stop playing. All the instruments are acoustic—can’t make too much noise and everything’s packed away anyway. The drummer just beats on an emptied suitcase for the same reasons. An old upright piano has been found somewhere, maybe in the motel lounge. And everyone is playing for the sheer joy of making music.

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were a husband and wife duo in the 60s and 70s, labeled a “blue-eyed soul” duo, but playing music that ranged from soul to blues, rock and gospel, with a little jam band thrown in for good measure. They’ve been cited as a great influence on Eric Clapton, George Harrison and others, and though her husband got top billing, Bonnie is one of the most soulful singers you’ll ever hear. The friends on this particular Delaney & Bonnie and Friends outing include Gram Parsons, Leon Russell, Dave Mason and Duane Allman.

The dozen tracks on Motel Shot range from a tent revivalesque, stirring Will the Circle Be Unbroken to an over-the-top Rock of Ages, Robert Johnson’s delta classic Come on in My Kitchen and the improbable hit single from the original album, Never Ending Song of Love.

It also includes a stellar showcase for Bonnie’s talent, Don’t Deceive Me [Please Don’t Go]. The YouTube video below will give you a little taste of the band’s sound and Bonnie’s incredible gift. The song isn’t on Motel Shot, but you’ll still get a sense of the amazing music awaiting you on this album, if you’re lucky enough to find it.

Little rituals and simple pleasures

September 5, 2007

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In recently promoting What’s on the kitchen boombox? and WTF? Random food for thought. from mere pages to their own separate blogs, I’ve been going over some of the deleted posts from the page days and finding some things that bear reviving. This originally ran as a WTF entry, but makes more sense as a boombox post.

 

I’ve often said of the vinyl in our music collection that if I could wave a magic wand and convert it all to CDs or mp3s, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Well, while there’s no magic wand, the technology exists to do just that. And I own it. But what with everything going on and my own natural inclination to procrastinate, I haven’t gotten around to doing anything with it.

So recently, with a song stuck in my head that we only have on vinyl—and that in fact may only exist on vinyl—I gave my turntable its first workout in a long time.

I’m a lover of little rituals. I love making martinis, for instance, even though I don’t much care for drinking them. The cocktail shaker, the martini glasses chilled in the freezer, a well chosen gin [the French brand Citadelle is a current favorite], the slightest splash of vermouth… all too grown up and elegant for words. Luckily for me, Marion does like the occasional martini, so I do get to make them for her once in a while.

And then there’s vinyl. Once pretty much the only way to hear recorded music, turntables and records have now become another cozy ritual for me. I tend to forget that, though, until some remembered piece of music forces my hand. Such was the case this weekend.

Just the act of removing the album from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and swinging the tone arm over to cue up the track [imperfectly, I might add] all felt so comfortably familiar. As did the minor pops and crackles, somehow less irritating than I remembered them being.

Soon I found myself flipping through albums, hauling some out to play and promising myself to come back to others another day. And yes, occasionally wondering what the hell had possessed us to make some purchases. I ended up keeping the turntable going much of the afternoon, spinning through rare Coleman Hawkins, followed by Charles Mingus, followed by Randy Newman and Stan Getz and Devo and even a best of Patsy Cline album, a bargain bin find from who knows where.

As much as I enjoyed hearing these old friends, I enjoyed the ritual of the turntable just as much. Maybe even a little more so. In an age of CD changers, universal remotes and impossibly tiny, impossibly hip hard drives serving as portable private jukeboxes, there’s something nicely old school and physical about the act of putting a record on the record player and dropping the needle into the groove.

No, I’m not going to start buying vinyl again. There’s too much I like about digital. But once I’ve converted my vinyl to digital—so I can take it in the car, load it into my iPod, create tapeless “mix tapes”—I won’t be in any rush to get rid of it.

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The “First Lady of Song”—no argument here

August 8, 2007

Ella Fitzgerald: The Cole Porter Songbook, Volume 1 and Volume 2
Polygram Records, 1990 [originally released on Verve, 1956]

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Let me start by getting a little blasphemy out of the way here. Billie Holiday does pretty much nothing for me. Yeah, tragic life, career cut short, blah, blah, blah. If you’ve read more than a few of the boombox posts, you know I’m a fan of darkness in music. But Lady day’s relentlessly downer songs, delivered in her trademark warble, just depress the crap out of me.

Of course, Marion and I are notoriously cranky about jazz vocalists. We pretty much think they should just shut up, sit down and let the musicians play. There are a few rare exceptions, though, and none is rarer than “The First Lady of Song”—Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella’s incredible vocal range is a perfect match for Cole’s equally wide-ranging lyrics, moving effortlessly and unerringly from funny to sad to sultry to swinging. And the lyrics are nothing short of brilliant, no matter the mood. As music critic Douglas Wolk puts it in his review on Amazon, “There have probably never been a singer and a songwriter as perfect for each other as Ella and Cole, and this delicious, inexhaustibly delightful album is the pinnacle of Fitzgerald’s career, not to mention one of the most likeable records ever made.”

As proof of that likeableness, let me offer up a little personal history. Older daughter Claire was what’s known in the trade as a colicky baby. If she was being fussy and the problem couldn’t be fixed with a dry diaper, a nap or being fed, you were pretty much hosed. We tried everything before accidentally lighting on the one thing that would work on a fairly reliable basis: We would dim the lights in the apartment, put on Ella singing Cole Porter [the original two-record vinyl set that got broken out into these two CDs] and dance with her. It almost always worked like a charm. Soon, a quiet, contented Claire would be curled up on a swaying parental shoulder.

From time to time, just out of curiosity, we would experiment with other vocalists. Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf… even Judy Garland. No dice. It had to be Ella, and it had to be Cole. And in all those many, many, many nights of dancing the fussy Claire to calmness, we never tired of this album.

We still have the vinyl. I pulled it out recently when I thought about posting it on the boombox here. We’re still not tired of it.

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